a seder plate
  • Pesach starts on the 15th of Nisan. In the secular calendar this year (2023), the Passover holiday will begin on Friday evening, April 5.
  • If you are in Israel, you will be celebrating one seder, but in the Diaspora, there are two nights of seders. This also means that Pesach lasts seven days in Israel and eight days elsewhere.
  • In Israel, the first and last day is regarded as a yom tov (full festival day). Elsewhere, this applies to the first two days plus the last day.
  • The other, intermediate days are considered a semi-holiday this period is called chol hamo-ed. For the observant, "work" is permitted. Going to one's job is a totally different matter the kids are all on chofesh / vacation from school anyway. So practically speaking, this is like "spring break" throughout the country :) .
  • Sefirat ha-omer / the counting of the omer starts with the second day of the chag / holiday wherever you live. This would be considered a countdown of great anticipation for two reasons: Omer is Hebrew for "sheaf". The omer of the past would have started with an offering of the first grain of the season to be harvested – a sheaf of barley. From the second day of Pesach one would count seven weeks. The fiftieth day would be when 2 loaves were baked – with flour made from the first harvested wheat sheaves – to be presented as a sacrificial offering. This is then Yom Habikurim ("day of first-fruits") aka Shavuot ("weeks", also "oaths", as in oaths of devotion between G-d and our people) – when we celebrate receiving the Torah and a both wider and higher contract with G-d. The names, like in Pesach, reflect the varied roots of the chag. Consider the timeline, and again the past-to-future flow in this instance: a mere seven weeks after fleeing Egypt and slavery, sudden liberation, getting one's initial bearings in a radically different environment and situation and zoom – we are entering into a whole new group covenant and the attending changes in identity and standards. All of this might be viewed as an understandably somewhat dizzying experience, to say the least.
  • The Shabbat preceding Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol / The Great Sabbath. A special Haftorah portion is read about the final redemption, to be announced by Eliyahu Hanavi / Elijah the Prophet. So while we are also preparing to look back, remember and review, we also look ahead with that mindset of renewal, further betterment, the future. As one can see, this is a recurrent theme.
  • In Israel, all attention turns to the coming Passover and preparations the very minute Purim ends. It's reflected everywhere constantly – in media, ads, family conversations, gift suggestions, plans, cleaning and sorting, one's first chametz reductions ("use it up"), etc. This is a fairly national cultural characteristic, whether one regards oneself as chiloni / secular, mesorti / traditional, or dati / religious. You would also have a pretty hard time finding bread during the chag, whether you keep to the obligation personally or forego it. The atmosphere is clearly Pesach with all its distinctiveness nationwide, a rather different experience obviously than many living overseas might be used to.

Varied Tidbits

round mazzot
  • As to the ritual of "Bedikat Chametz" (checking for leavened food), see this page on Chabad's website.
  • Mechirat Chametz / Selling of chametz which is a temporary transfer of ownership holds more meaning if you are a business, due to stock and financial losses. For others who follow the observance fully, one might still carry out this ritual or alternatively donate one's chametz, such as to a food bank for the needy. You could make a deal with a non-Jewish friend or neighbor regarding some of your goods too. Typically a small down-payment would be made, which would then be returned at the conclusion of the chag. You do not need an intermediary or rabbi, although some go this route. In fact, you can "sell" your chametz these days online! 
  • It depends on how you look at it: Kitniyot are legumes and a bit more. If you follow Ashkenazic tradition you include these as chametz. If you follow Sephardic tradition, they are acceptable to eat during Pesach. (The issue concerns how one views the matter of possible fermentation. It does not matter what ethnic background you are of course). This category includes beans, lentils, peas, corn, rice, millet, sunflower and sesame seeds, and depending on one's authority, perhaps peanuts. If you do plan to follow the ban on kitniyot, beware of the many items with corn products in them, like corn syrup. String beans, by the way, are okay.
mooflettaA Mofletta, traditionally eaten during the Maimuna celebration.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • There are dramatization traditions within the seder among many cultures, for example among the Sfaradim. This reflects the idea of the Hagada as more than a rote manual it can also be regarded as a resource of examples and a springboard for personalization and creativity. The obligation of "retelling the story" is more important than the particular "how".
  • Maimuna is celebrated by Jews of North African background, starting the evening Pesach has ended and through the next day. This is traditionally considered to be the anniversary of the death of the father of Maimonides of the 12th century Maimon ben Yosef. The evening fare is dairy, and there may be visiting and gift exchanges of food. People gather the next day for large festive social outings and picnics.

The Seder Night

mazzot covered

The actual meal, hagadot etc. aside… what you need for a seder:

Know your seder plate / ke-ara

    1. Karpas / כרפס – A symbol of spring and rebirth, this is a green typically like parsley, celery or potato (that last one is because in some cultures like in Eastern Europe, greens were often harder to get). Some also say that karpas represents how the Israelites at first thrived when they came to Egypt, population-wise as well.
    2. Charoset / חרוסת – This symbolizes the mortar made for bricks while we were enslaved. There are also allusions to fertility (in defiance of Pharoah's attempts to lessen the population) in the use of fruits in the mixture (see Passover recipes).
chazeret Chazeret - fresh horseradish root
    • Maror / מרור – Here you will see some duplication and interchangeability with chazeret below. Some seders use both items, some simply one. Mar is the Hebrew word for "bitter". Maror refers to bitter herbs, like a romaine lettuce leaf or some chicory. The idea is that while at first it may taste alright, there is some bitter aftertaste.
    • Chazeret / חזרת – This is a second bitter herb, and specifically it's the Hebrew word for horseradish. Fresh root is better, and it you let it sit out for a while after grating, it may lose a touch of its oomph.
      • Maror and/or chazeret may be used for both…
        • dipping into the charoset to make the bitter association with the product of our slavery.
        • use in "korech", to make the "Hillel sandwich". By the way, sandwich in Hebrew is karich.
      • Note that personally experiencing bitterness is also sometimes associated with a greater capacity for understanding and mercifulness.
    • Beytza / ביצה – This is the Hebrew word for egg. For the purpose of the seder, it’s "roasted" (actually, you can hard-boil it and then place on a burner to scorch it a little). This is a symbol of festival sacrifice brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. The egg also represents fertility, birth and hope for the future, as well as rebirth, renewal and spring in the natural lifecycle.
    • Zeroa / זרוע – This is a bone, commonly a shank bone, that has been roasted. (Zeroa also means "arm" in Hebrew). It also developed as a symbol of a typical festival sacrifice (see our overview of Pesach and its evolution). Learn Hebrew Pod has a vegetarian outlook. In keeping with this spirit, we would mention an alternative that was offered by the rabbis already ages ago (Pesahim 114b) using a broiled beet instead.

You also will need:

  1. Three matzot and a coverMatza is our "lechem oni" / bread of affliction and poverty (and so much more, as we note in other sections).
  2. Wine (and grape juice for children) – One drinks four "cups" of wine in the course of the seder (well, refill sizes certainly vary, keeping in mind that one should preferably empty the glass each time). Some attribute this to four expressions of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7. Wine in Hebrew is yayin.
  3. Salt water in a bowl – for dipping one's karpas. This represents the tears of slavery.
One drinks four "cups" of wine
Pillows - The fancier the better
  1. Pillows for reclining – The freedom to recline (as well as to be festive like royalty and former slave-owners) is wholly unlike the lot of a slave.
  2. Another cup of wine for Eliyahu Hanavi / Elijah the Prophet – (who visits every home and has the capacity to drink from all those waiting cups, as each one somehow always miraculously empties by the end of the evening...). Again, this reflects our review and awareness of past connected to hope and further improvement into the future (see Shabbat Hagadol above). Some suggest that everyone contribute a bit of wine from their own glass to fill this cup. It suits the participatory nature of the seder and "personalizes", if you like, that sense of hope and ongoing commitment.

The Passover Seder Outline

an Elijah cup at the seder table

What a clever opening in the hagada – we typically sing our "table of contents" (a string of the words in bold below).
Here then is the simple outline of a seder:

  1. Kadesh / קדש – First cup of wine & kidush / blessing over wine (sanctifying this day).
  2. Urchatz / ורחץ – Wash hands (with no blessing).
  3. Karpas / כרפס – Dip vegetable in salt water.
    (*We do two dippings of vegetables in this seder, one here, and one later of maror in charoset. Since a more general custom of dipping later became less common, the whole issue became one of the four questions: "Why do we dip twice?").
  4. Yachatz / יחץ – Take the middle matza and break it into two. The smaller portion goes back between the other two matzot, while the larger portion is placed inside a napkin and will at some point be hidden as the afikomen.
  5. Magid / מגיד – Retell the story (see So Many Ways to Go… (blessing + second cup of wine at conclusion).
hands under water stream Rachatz - washing hands (with blessing)
  1. Rachatz / רחץ – Wash hands (with blessing).
  2. Motzi, Matza / מוציא מצה – Raise the three matzot and recite the blessing for bread and another for matza.
  3. Maror / מרור – Dip it in the charoset and recite blessing (for this one don't recline).
  4. Korech / כורך – Take the bottom matza to use to make a sandwich with maror (based on an opinion by Rabbi Hillel).
  5. Shuchan orech / שולחן עורך – This is the actual festive meal part. Some eat the egg in salt water first. Various reasons have been given, such as representing sacrifice in Temple times, first food eaten after a devastating event such as a funeral, to remember the Temple and its loss, conversely as joyous symbol of spring, birth, renewal and future, and also as a symbol of our people as hardened and tough, shaped by our history.
  6. tzafun / צפון – This includes the return of the afikomen, which is shared and eaten reclining. The meal cannot conclude until this occurs.
  7. Barech / ברך – Recite Birkat Hamazon / grace after the meal. Drink third cup of wine.
  8. Hallel / הלל – Open the door for Eliyahu Hanavi, finish reciting the Hallel (Psalm 114), which is traditionally read at festivals. Drink fourth cup of wine.
  9. Nirtza / נרצה – Conclude reading and then declare "leshana haba-a beyerushalayim" / בשנה הבאה הירושלים ("Next year in Jerusalem").
    Then more singing – like "Ki lo na-e", "Adir Hu", "Echad Mi Yode-a" and "Chad Gadya".

Now that you have some basic orienting outlines, we suggest you move on to So Many Ways to Go, Let's Talk About It, and Let's Get Busy.